Author Archive: Jen Kinney

Philadelphia’s Placing a $500 Million Bet on Play

Even as Lawncrest, the Philadelphia neighborhood, has transformed over the past half century, Lawncrest the city rec center has — for better and for worse — remained largely the same.

A mash-up of two adjacent neighborhoods, Lawndale and Crescentville, Lawncrest is sandwiched between the neglected urban expanse of North Philadelphia and the near-suburban neatness of the city’s far northeast. Best known for hosting one of the city’s longest-running July Fourth celebrations, the neighborhood also gained a reputation for violence after a string of murders in 2014. Incomes have declined; poverty is rising. Nail salons, day care centers and delis plod redundantly down the Rising Sun Avenue commercial corridor, while the neighborhood lacks for a convenient grocery store. An aging library sits at one end of the strip, next to the rec center and a dusty double-wide trailer that serves as an outpost of the DA’s office.

But besides the pool (installed in the 1960s), and the playground (replaced two decades ago, now dilapidated), and the community garden (just a few years old), the Lawncrest Recreation Center is almost exactly the same today as it was when it was built in the 1940s. It’s still at the heart of the neighborhood, still much beloved, even as neighbors use the same old rec infrastructure in new ways. Baseball has waned in popularity, so the center’s four diamonds don’t get the use they once did, but the impromptu football field carved out from their intersecting outfields bustles with leagues for every age. Hockey is rarely played in the walled-in outdoor rink anymore, but teams largely composed of Latin American immigrants play weekend soccer tournaments there. Teens cluster, too, in the shade of the library, smoking illicit cigarettes and charging their phones at an outdoor outlet.

Maintenance, though, hasn’t kept pace with need. The gym roof leaks, sometimes so badly games have to be canceled midway through. The wall around the pool is crumbling. All but two of the swings are missing; playground equipment lies snapped and unusable on the ground. The center is dark, crowded, hot and not ADA-friendly. On a busy Saturday, cheerleading practice and dance class fill the multipurpose rooms; zumba has been relegated to a hallway. Where there are no picnic tables, neighbors grill and picnic on a weedy lawn, paying no mind to drifts of litter collecting by tree trunks.

Less than 2 miles away, the rec center at Sturgis Playground gleams like new. Also located in the 9th District, in a neighborhood similarly posed in a holding pattern between gentrification and decline, Sturgis’ rec center was rebuilt from the ground up in 2013, after nearly a decade of fierce advocacy by neighbors Jeff Hackett and Frances McDonald. Once so underused the city threatened to close it, the center today is a thriving town square for the neighborhood of modest single-family homes that surround it, especially popular with parents and children in the evening hours after work and school. Hackett and McDonald credit the rebuild for the transformation, and something else: their own watchful presence, their enforcement of a moral code. “We walked the playground, we stopped the profanity, we stopped the smoking ourselves, we didn’t wait for anybody to do that,” says Hackett.

Gallery: Philadelphia’s Sturgis Rec Center

  • Children run toward the Sturgis rec center. 

  • The rec center lobby 

  • Sturgis’ multipurpose room 

  • Boys play basketball on the Sturgis courts. 

Whereas public-private partnerships and private friends groups have made dazzling examples of Philadelphia’s Center City public spaces, in the outlying neighborhoods, this is what has kept rec centers running: neighbors and residents, paying up, with their time and money, despite facing Sisyphean levels of need. Voluntary associations known as advisory councils raise funds for programming, and increasingly for basics like air conditioning and new floors. As a result, rec centers experience vast disparities. Wealthier neighborhoods can more easily raise money from residents. Rec centers with politically savvy advisory councils might agitate effectively for renovations, as Sturgis did. Unorganized rec centers in lower-income neighborhoods go without.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative aims to level that playing field, with the city planning to invest $500 million in up to about half of Philadelphia’s 406 parks, libraries and rec centers over the next seven years. Guided by the belief that investment in shared civic spaces is good for the economy and improves children’s life outcomes, Rebuild sites will be chosen in part based on factors like a neighborhood’s poverty, health data, drug offense rates and the potential for economic growth.

With the first round of Rebuild sites to be announced by the end of the year, Next City partnered with urban designers at Gehl Studio to survey users at both Sturgis and Lawncrest — a rec center that has already received transformative investment, and one that might. (The William Penn Foundation provided grant funding for the reporting and research and is also a supporter of the Rebuild initiative.) Sturgis likely won’t be a top pick for Rebuild money, while Lawncrest will. Both are located in Philadelphia neighborhoods where poverty is rising, and in which, like the city as a whole, residents are becoming more diverse and younger.

Our goal was to better understand how rec centers are being used in these neighborhoods that are changing in ways that reflect citywide trends, and to explore how new investment in facilities might affect that. We asked people how often they visit, how they travel there, whom they come with, how long they stay and how safe they feel. We asked about their connection to the rec center, what would make them feel safer, and what would make them visit more often. Surveyors also made hourly notes of where people were in the spaces, their ages and genders, and the number of pedestrians passing by. (See charts for information.)

The data confirmed just how valuable these places are to the communities that surround them. Over 80 percent of respondents at both Sturgis and Lawncrest said they view the parks as neighborhood gathering places. Two-thirds of respondents at Sturgis and three-quarters at Lawncrest said they visit weekly. Exactly 62 percent at both parks said they learn about neighborhood opportunities there. Despite the gulf between the quality of their facilities, both remain places to chat with neighbors, exercise, and relax with friends and family. The data collected indicate that both places do a better than average job at encouraging visitors to talk to one another, build relationships that extend beyond the space and interact serendipitously. “Compared to other sites that have been surveyed, Sturgis and Lawncrest both reinforce social networks in a positive way,” says Kate DeSantis, designer and strategist at Gehl.

Yet, Sturgis evokes more unequivocally positive responses. When Gehl’s researchers asked park users how safe they felt at Lawncrest, the most common answer – 34 percent — was neutral. Only 46 percent felt “very” or “somewhat” safe from crime. Compare that to Sturgis, where 76 percent said they felt safe. At both parks, perceived safety coincided almost perfectly with visitors’ emotional attachment. While three-quarters of surveyed park users at Sturgis said they felt a positive connection to the park, only half at Lawncrest did. A third were merely neutral. Surveyed park users between the ages of 15 and 19 — a target demographic for the city’s parks and rec system — were less likely to feel safe and less likely to report a positive connection to the spaces, survey results show.

Gehl has done similar surveys in public spaces all across the United States. Because every site is so distinct, comparisons are done very carefully, with an eye to spatial, programmatic and geographic differences. “Public life in cities is really messy, there’s no apples to apples of anything,” says DeSantis.

When it comes to Sturgis and Lawncrest, the former is a far smaller site nestled in a residential area with a compact rec center, two playgrounds, and a handful of fields and courts. Lawncrest’s bigger center has a gym and an auditorium, an outdoor pool, and a larger cadre of fields and courts sprawling out from a bustling commercial corridor. Whereas Lawncrest’s football field gets ripped up by ATV riders, Sturgis keeps fields locked unless users have a permit.

But even after accounting for the differences, some conclusions can be drawn. A 2017 empirical study from the Center for Active Design quantified the impact of things like park maintenance and benches — both in short supply at Lawncrest — on people’s attitudes about a community. Researchers found that litter is associated with eroded civic trust while more seating is associated with greater levels. The poorer the conditions of a shared public space in general, the more neutral or negative the sense of civic trust, CfAD data showed. The disparate levels of positive connection and maintenance at the two parks surveyed by Gehl reflect a similar pattern.

“Their responses affirm what we said about middle neighborhoods,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents both parks, and thinks a brand-new rec center at Lawncrest should be a Rebuild priority. “These are neighborhoods that are, right now, right on the tipping point for growth or decline. So if we don’t make the investment that we’re talking about, what is neutral today, what is a neutral perspective today, you come back five years and you let everything stay the same — no investment, with no engagement — that neutral will be a negative, and rightfully so.”

Gallery: What Philadelphia Residents Think About Sturgis and Lawncrest

The Kenney administration knows that it will take more than new playgrounds and basketball courts to serve the next generation. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell is among those who hope that Rebuild strengthens the relationships among the city, the advisory councils and the neighborhoods they represent. “That’s what we see when we make physical improvements to parks, it’s a wonderful way to engage new supporters, to reengage old supporters who are tired and who feel their site has been ignored,” she says.

But exactly how to engage those new supporters, particularly teens, remains an open question. Ott Lovell and other city officials focused on Rebuild are working with the City Council and partners outside of City Hall — neighborhood organizations, citywide nonprofits and philanthropy — to involve more people in decision-making, but building relationships takes time and resources, both of which are in short supply.

Case in point: Lawncrest’s advisory council is significantly older and whiter than the population using the facility, while Sturgis’ council is dominated by people in their 60s. (Black males between the ages of 7 and 30 are both facilities’ greatest users, our research found.)

“What’s going to happen when I go?” asks Tina Campbell, a 53-year-old rec center staffer and volunteer dance coach at Lawncrest. “What’s going to happen when all these older generations go, who’s going to do what needs to be done?”

In many ways, the true test of Rebuild will not be whether state-of-the-art structures can be built. Sturgis’ example shows that they can. The question is, can the social and political systems that have traditionally kept these places running adapt to meet the needs of tomorrow’s city — and the youth who will grow up to lead it?

Designing Safe Spaces for Teens

Hackett’s first memory of Sturgis playground is of being chased out of it. White teenagers ran him off, while white cops stood by, watching.

“It’s funny how God works,” he says. Today, he’s not only advisory council president for Sturgis and its fiercest advocate, but also a ward committee person, president of the local civic association, and a member of both the local police advisory council and the citywide parks commission.

But some things don’t change. Teenagers represent a sticking point at both Sturgis and Lawncrest, though young men are both parks’ primary users.

Hackett and McDonald bemoan the lack of young parents involved in the rec center and cite the need to raise up young people to become future leaders on the advisory council, but Sturgis no longer offers programming to youth over 16. They cut the programming because teenagers were bringing guns to the park, Hackett says. “We put a stop to it; it was a safety issue.”

Jeff Hackett stands at a spray park at Sturgis. 

It wasn’t always that way. Hackett used to host a 26-and-under basketball league at Sturgis, against the recommendation of Parks and Recreation. Despite allowing a team that was all gang members, there were no fights that season, he says. “They policed themselves.”

Even without programming for older teens, 82 percent of visitors observed over two days at Sturgis were between the ages of 7 and 30. On a weekday, 85 percent of visitors were male. Lawncrest too skews toward young men. Though most of the indoor programming seemed to target women, Gehl observed that outside, between two-thirds and three-quarters of park visitors were boys and men.

Among visitors, there are different views on what the park needs. Whereas some surveyed about safety at Lawncrest said teenagers smoking pot and cigarettes contributed to their unease, and suggested increased police presence to curb it, one young man made a point to walk up to a Gehl researcher, after he’d completed the survey, to reiterate: “For real, we need that water fountain and more trash cans, one by every bench. And tell the cops to stop harassing people.”

Compared to the average user, youth between the ages of 15 and 19 reported less positive views of both Sturgis and Lawncrest and felt less safe in both, but had fewer specific suggestions for what they would improve, besides adding swings and benches. “Less bad people,” they suggested. “Less drugs. No things bad for little kids.” The very users most likely to be identified as part of the safety problem don’t feel all that safe themselves.

Nonetheless, DeSantis, of Gehl, says extreme age and gender imbalances in public space can leave women and others feeling unsafe. At Lawncrest, a group of 10-year-old boys told me if it was up to them, they’d get rid of the outdoor basketball courts. “That’s where the bullies” — i.e., the teenagers — “hang out,” one said. Another told me he saw a person passed out near the library because of drugs. “Overdose,” his aunt mouthed.

In addition to the broken glass and decrepit equipment, it was concerns about violence and drug dealing and “bad teenagers,” as Hackett puts it, that nearly led to Sturgis’ closure in the early 2000s.

Edwin Desamour, a volunteer and sometimes paid staffer at Waterloo Playground in North Philadelphia, knows those concerns well. Waterloo, too, had a reputation for having been “taken over” by drug dealers and addicts, he says. Kids and their parents avoided the space, sending out a ripple of civic distrust.

“In the beginning, the majority of the neighbors couldn’t stand the kids that were in the neighborhood,” says Desamour. “But when we opened up the playground and had the youth using the playground, you see the mentality start to change, because the kids had never had anywhere to go.” Now that the park is getting cleaned up, a block captain who had previously feuded with youth now has them knocking on his door to open the gate. “Now they know who Mr. Nelson is, they know who Mr. Carlos is down the block, they know who Miss Mary is,” says Desamour of the teens’ newfound relationships with neighborhood elders.

Groundbreaking for a playground redesign, funded by foundations and nonprofits, is expected to happen this fall, but Desamour and partners have already begun to lay the groundwork, asking the neighborhood for input, involving youth in beautification projects, and setting expectations around behavior, as Hackett and McDonald have done.

“There was lots of pushback at the beginning when I kept putting pressure like, ‘We don’t roll up here and smoke a blunt,’ or ‘We don’t throw trash on the floor here,’” he says. He didn’t ban anybody, but kids who didn’t like the new culture stopped showing up. Desamour engaged those who stayed in projects like constructing benches with Tiny WPA, a nonprofit that teaches youth how to build public furniture. When someone broke into the playground and vandalized their creations, the kids were distraught. Some of the same youth who had once been destructive themselves, now valued their park in a different way. Desamour says, “They felt that ownership with building things.”

In my conversations at Sturgis and Lawncrest, even with the relatively young, I was told time and again that kids and parents have changed, that this feeling of civic responsibility was a thing of the past. Leadership at Lawncrest told me they used to give kids $5 to pick up trash; now they seemingly won’t do it for any amount. Hackett and McDonald bemoaned the passing of an era when the entire neighborhood played a role in parenting the youth.

Desamour says at Waterloo, the playground makeover has had a hand in bringing those days back. Whereas before neighbors merely complained about the youth, “now you’ll see some of the ladies in the neighborhood, they will actually holler at a kid when he’s doing wrong, even though it’s not their kid, but it’s almost like an old-school community,” he says.

Erasing the Dividing Lines

Hackett doesn’t think that he and McDonald’s strict no-tolerance policy — no cursing, no violence, no substances — sends kids running from Sturgis. Like at Waterloo, those who can’t follow the rules leave; those who can, stay. To his mind, it’s really a space for children. “This is a kid’s environment,” he tells the teenagers. “You should be thanking them for letting you use their space.”

On any given day, though, the parks’ basketball courts are bouncing with young men. And the players tell me they feel their needs went overlooked in the rebuild. Isaiah Williams, who grew up down the street and has been coming to Sturgis his whole life, notices that more young children use the park after its makeover. But the basketball league was never restarted, the posts that prop up the nets are leaning, and the backboards weren’t replaced. “We told the person who run the park that we need courts,” he says.

Hackett knows the players don’t like the cheap poles and backboards, but says replacing them wasn’t an option. He tried to form a youth panel to consult on the redesign, but had very little participation. Even his own sons weren’t consistent members. Early on, Sturgis’s rebuild was going to include adding a brand new indoor gym. When that was scrapped, “we lost a lot of those young guys,” says Hackett. They felt cheated.

“I think it’s very important, the work that took place up to the build,” says Desamour. Trying to engage people after construction projects may be too late, but when people, and especially youth are involved in early on, “Then you can build and people take ownership and respect it, and they want to protect it by all means.”

That feeling of ownership is a tricky thing. It’s what compels people like Desamour to volunteer, what drove Hackett and McDonald to fight for their rebuild at Sturgis, what made the Waterloo youth teary-eyed when their benches were vandalized. But when any small group makes decisions about a shared public space, there’s a risk that ownership can be used as a tool of exclusion.

Philadelphia learned that lesson this winter when the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a private group of residents who manage the prestigious park, got the city to ban sitting on the park’s limestone walls. Ostensibly concerned about pot smoking and vandalism, many wondered if this wasn’t just a ploy to keep youth of color out of the park. Though the city eventually backtracked on the ban, the Friends group justified their attempted curtailment of legal uses of public space by citing the recent million dollar investment they’d made to improve the walls.

Mike McCrae, president of the citywide advisory council that acts as support for all the individual ones, says similar scenarios can play out with advisory councils. One group was running their South Philly rec center like a private club, he says, organizing youth leagues that intentionally kept the gym booked up and unavailable for public use. As a result, “some of the minority kids were literally relegated to the outside basketball court, but they weren’t allowed to play on the indoor basketball courts,” he says.

“I don’t want to say segregated,” McCrae insists, and then says it three more times.

At Lawncrest, advisory council president Claudia Quinton openly admits that representation is a problem. Since 2000, Lawncrest’s white population has declined by 20 percent, and its population of color increased by 133 percent. Today, the existing advisory council reflects a neighborhood that no longer exists.

“From a racial perspective, our community is far more diverse than our advisory council,” she says. “Age-wise, most of us are older. We do have some diversity on our council, but it would be great if we had more.”

It’s not that Lawncrest lacks for committed, caring young people or neighbors of color.

Tina Campbell, for example, is both a paid part-time staff member at the rec, and an unpaid coach. As we talk outside the rec, she keeps calling out to young parents, some of whom she once coached on a drill team and who now bring their children to her dance classes. “Everyone getting so old I can’t handle it,” she beams, waving to another young man. “When I see that, and they’s like ‘Hey Miss T,’ I’m like ‘yes!’ He’s not on the corner selling drugs, he’s not running around packing a gun. He’s going to school, he’s doing what he needs to do. So that makes me feel good when I see those kids. And I feel like the rec is a part of that.” With a makeover, she thinks it could do more.

Campbell introduces me to Keisha Moore, who plays on the volleyball league, works at the after-school program, and volunteers as a dance coach; her husband coaches basketball; their two children cheer, play basketball and dance at the rec. Campbell jokes, “They should have beds here.”

Tina Campbell stands in a gym at Lawncrest.

But neither Moore nor her husband sits on Lawncrest’s advisory council; nor does Corrie Brown, president of the Lawncrest Lions athletic league, nor Campbell herself. When I ask why not, Brown cites a lack of time, though he’s trying to delegate more of his role so he can attend the meetings. Campbell and Moore say they hadn’t considered it before, but now they will.

“That would be great,” says Quinton. “They know much better what’s going on around here, what people want.”

Until now, she insists, getting neighbors beyond the usual few to show up to meetings has been a challenge. Time is a barrier for many. Quinton works full-time and attends grad school while also serving on the council, which involves monthly meetings about which programs and activities to run and how to spend the money collected from them. When I ask Hackett and McDonald how much time they spend at Sturgis a week, they look at each other and break into a loud cackle. “Realistically, more than my paid job,” says Hackett.

“It is a lot of work, and I know it’s difficult for a lot of rec leaders who have other things to worry about,” says Desamour, who has a background in working with at-risk youth. Many volunteers and rec center staff do not, even though the work Desamour describes doing at Waterloo closely resembles social work. During our phone call, he stops to talk to a teen who’s known for throwing rocks and bottles, giving staff trouble. “I want you in the playground, I want you behaving, but you have to respect the neighbors,” Desamour tells him. “School’s about to start, I better not get no calls from your teacher either.” It’s exhaustively relational, personal work.

A New Model for Supporting Rec Centers and Empowering Neighborhoods

Residents have played a role in running their own rec centers virtually since the Department of Recreation was founded in the 1950s. Though the department funded facilities, staff and some programming, volunteer groups quickly formed to supplement their efforts.

“Because there was never enough. Even back in the day, there was never enough money for programming,” says McCrae. “They always wanted to do more than the city could possibly think about doing.”

Over the decades, the city did less and less. The parks, playgrounds and rash of rec centers built in the heady 1950s deteriorated. The city reneged on an $8 million boost to the parks department budget in 2008, citing the recession, and never restored it. Today Philadelphia spends $58.90 per resident on parks each year, according to ParkScore. Minneapolis, the U.S. city with the highest ranked park system, spends $232.59.

Given that lack, advisory councils and neighbors more broadly play a crucial role. They donate their time to coach sports and teach dance and organize etiquette classes. Councils will consider whether a proposed activity is appropriate for the rec to sponsor. (A Christmas caroling event, for example, was nixed at Lawncrest.) Instead of the city offering blanket programs across all rec centers, advisory councils ensure each location’s activities are tailored to the site. Quinton, aware that the council is nonrepresentative, still tries to steer rec center events towards inclusivity. Like when choosing playlists for a yard sale. “This isn’t a classic rock neighborhood anymore,” she says.

“Ultimately it’s the city funding that keeps those centers open, but the advisory councils are critical, absolutely critical, to keeping them well-programmed, and in many ways, holding the recreation staff accountable, and that’s not a bad thing, not unlike a PTA for a school,” says George Matysik, executive director of the nonprofit Philadelphia Parks Alliance. “You’d love to have a high level of engagement, that can really help to make a school better and it can certainly help to make a recreation center better.”

The councils are not unlike the city’s 120 park friends groups, also volunteer associations that may plan activities and fundraise for park improvements beyond what the city can provide. But advisory councils, which make decisions about rec centers and adjacent playground and park space, are unique in that they handle money raised through programming offered by the city. Campers pay a fee, for example; that money goes into a general fund; and the council decides whether to spend it on t-shirts or new basketball hoops, or, increasingly, on major upkeep. Lawncrest’s council has been saving up to replace the gym floor. With the possibility of Rebuild funding dangled before them, they’re now uncertain whether to spend it.

These can be large sums of money — McCrae says councils are discouraged from hoarding more than $30,000 at a time — and the councils are accountable to the city to show their receipts. But Ott Lovell admits that the department has invested less resources in organizing advisory councils than it has in friends groups, because rec centers are staffed with employees, whereas most neighborhood parks are not. Though there’s a guidebook for how advisory councils are supposed to operate, in reality, they vary widely in their size, scope, inclusivity, formality and relationship to rec center staff. Some have gotten into trouble for abuse of funds. A team of about a dozen people from the Department of Parks and Recreation and the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy meet weekly to talk about how to support park friends groups. “But to be honest, the network on the advisory council side has been really weak,” says Ott Lovell.

“The parks sphere is a very crowded sphere, whereas within recreation there really weren’t a lot of broad stakeholders working to improve, citywide, what the ground floor organization looks like at the individual rec centers,” says Matysik, whose organization is now trying to fill that gap. With the approval of Rebuild, “we started to see that there was a big need to get a lot of these advisory councils established and organized.”

As at Lawncrest, Matysik says the problem is rarely that no neighbors are dedicated enough to do the work, but that they don’t know how to get involved in decision-making. Like Philadelphia’s system of ward leaders and committee people, advisory councils can be old boy’s clubs. They may have been meeting at the same time and place for decades, but not posting public notices. Those on the in know how to get involved; those new to the neighborhood don’t know how to start.

“How do you get the word out, how do you get people to know where these meetings are?” asks Campbell, who thinks public awareness is a problem at Lawncrest. She knows about community meetings because she works at the rec, “but I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t work here,” she says. Desamour says at Waterloo, the work has been even more basic than that. He’s been taking his time starting a friends group, educating people about the fundamentals of public meetings — agendas, minutes, rules of order. “You gotta meet people where they’re at,” he says.

Gallery: Philadelphia’s Lawncrest Rec Center

  • Children climb over Lawncrest’s playground.

  • Litter under a bench

  • Young people bike across the Lawncrest basketball court on the Fourth of July.

  • The Lawncrest auditorium

  • Gymnastic mats rolled up in the Lawncrest auditorium

  • The multipurpose room at the Lawncrest rec center 

  • A room at the rec center is set aside for tots.

  • Norman Skip Hodo sits by the ring where he teaches boxing.

When organizing in neighborhoods without strong advisory councils, Matysik and the Parks Alliance start by going door to door. Then they convene a public meeting to ask, not what does this rec center need, but what does the neighborhood need. “For us that gets back to thinking of these as community centers, not athletic facilities,” says Matysik. Maybe a neighborhood really needs a health center, or job training programs that could be housed in a rec center. Matysik wants communities to ask those questions before the Rebuild money starts to flow. That means bringing more representative groups to the advisory council table now.

“We need to use Rebuild not just to rebuild what was there, but to think about what is now relevant to this community,” says Ott Lovell. She and the city just aren’t quite sure yet how they’ll go about it. If Lawncrest is chosen as a Rebuild site, for example, it won’t just be up to Councilmember Parker — who is one of the fiercest advocates for a total demolition and rebuild — or to Quinton and the advisory council — who also want a new rec center and brand new playground — how those funds get used. But while community engagement is a stated pillar of Rebuild, the city is still figuring out what that will mean.

Ott Lovell suggests conducting an assessment of the city’s advisory councils, like the department did with park friends groups several years ago, and then see how they’re doing throughout the Rebuild process. Officials told PlanPhilly that nonprofit partners working with Rebuild sites will be expected to prove they had done sufficient outreach, and that the city may experiment with new tactics like neighborhood ambassadors. That work hasn’t yet begun, and a budget for community engagement work has not yet been set.

Quinton and Bill Dolbow, president of Lawncrest’s neighborhood association, also hope Rebuild increases engagement, but they’re more cynical about it. Unlike Hackett and McDonald, who insist that a community must be organized before they try to secure funding, or Desamour, who believes that relationship-building must begin well before construction, both Quinton and Dolbow — who say they’ve tried and tried to get parents, particularly of color, involved — have a “build-it-and-they-will-come” attitude.

“If the money’s coming here, they’ll all show up at the meeting,” says Dolbow, of the athletic league parents and other stakeholders who haven’t been involved before.

Rebuild does call for 40 new positions to be created for painters, plumbers and other maintenance workers that can help with upkeep, though so far there is no plan under Rebuild to hire additional program staff.

Which worries folks at Lawncrest, who fear that the rec center will get torn down and replaced, and then deteriorate again for lack of staffing and maintenance. “That was our biggest concern [about Rebuild],” says McCrae. “You’re going to throw [$500 million] in here, but if we don’t have any more staff than we have now, then eventually the same thing is going to happen. In five more years, six more years, seven more years, these places are going to be falling apart again because they have no one taking care of them. Because it’s nobody’s job.”

Advisory councils who have been through the lean years, receiving little support from the city, “want to support what’s going on at the center but they also don’t want to take over responsibility for things the city normally does,” McCrae continues. As Hackett and McDonald are now dismayed to learn, once neighbors start to take on more responsibilities, they might be stuck with them. When a freezer broke down at Sturgis, just weeks after the city had come out to inspect it, they and other neighbors donated their own freezers rather than wait for the city to fix it. McDonald stocks the concession stand with her own money; Hackett has cut the football field himself. Rec center staff can turn over relatively quickly, so it’s up to neighbors to provide consistency.

“You don’t give us what we’re supposed to have, you don’t give us what the city says is required, so we go in our pocket, or we’ll do something to raise funds and do it ourselves,” says McDonald. “You can’t wait for the city to do something. You have to take pride in where you live, say what you want, pull together, do it, and then the city will come along.”

This can create a paradoxical tension between councils and rec center staff. Hackett and McDonald feel empowered to spend their own money, in addition to council money, to make sure their rec gets whatever it needs. As a result, they suspect that staff sometimes resent their initiative. But when staff rely on them too heavily, they balk.

“Why are they asking me to run a senior’s program? You’re getting paid,” says McDonald. “We don’t want your job, we’re just trying to make your job easier.” Hacket laughs, “We don’t even really want our job.” Both have tried to step back from the council multiple times, but fear what will happen if they do so without adequate replacements. “We’ve put in too many hours, too many years, to get this where it is to just walk away,” says McDonald.

Desamour, too, looks forward to the day when Waterloo can operate on its own, without him. His advice to parks that may receive Rebuild funding: Identify your community’s natural leaders, and start to build up their capacity now — particularly among the youth. “If I have this kid and he’s a leader, if I can break through to him and get him on the positive side, I just saved me a lot of work,” he says.

When Campbell compares Sturgis to Lawncrest, that’s the biggest difference she sees — leadership on the one side, and its lack on the other. “The rec center over there is so clean. Swings, they have everything, but they fought for that,” she says. “It’s time for someone to care about Lawncrest. The things that Sturgis has, we should be able to have that too.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

New Podcast Aims to Change the Conversation About Public Transit

(AP Photo/Janet Hostetter)

From the back seat of a Lyft to a walk in the neighborhood with an aging resident, a new podcast tags along with Twin Cities residents on their daily commutes in an attempt to illustrate how big transportation discussions play out in individuals’ lives.

Each episode of “Here to There,” by local public affairs agency Apparatus and the transportation advocates at Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips (the latter two merged in January), takes on a different facet of transportation: health, sustainability, employment, accessibility and more.

Co-host Laura Monn Ginsburg says the show is driven by a simple reality. “I have to get from here to there every day. How do I do it, what are my choices, do I even really feel like I have a choice?” she asks. “If we’re talking about a topic as broad as health, as broad as equity, as broad as accessibility, how do we remember that there are individuals living these things out day to day?”

In the first half of each episode, she and co-host Leili Fatehi join a Twin Cities resident for an actual trip, and then talk to an expert or advocate for a broader perspective. For a show on transit and employment, they ride along with a Lyft driver and popular local DJ who talks about the uncertainty of making rent in the gig economy. In the second half, they speak to a transit union president about how, perhaps paradoxically, this rise of transportation gig work is coinciding with a labor shortage for more traditional transit jobs like bus drivers, despite their relatively good pay and dependable schedules.

In another — Ginsburg’s favorite episode so far, she admits — she interviews her own dad, a super commuter who has been crossing the entire Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area daily for 10 years. It’s not a perfect arrangement, he says, but he’s found ways to make the experience comfortable: exiting the highway when possible to drive through neighborhoods he describes as “relaxing” and “familiar.” And yet, though there’s no convenient transit option that would take him to work, he expresses support for public transportation.

“I think public transportation is a quality of life, and a quality of city life, that speaks to the vibrancy of your city,” he says, the rumble of his tires on the highway audible beneath him.

That nuance is too often missing, says Fatehi.

“The conversation around transportation has really been dominated by legislative controversy like funding for transit versus funding for roads,” she says. “We felt like that has dominated so much of the public face of what is the transportation conversation in Minnesota that we felt like we needed some sort of a venue to look beyond just that to what else is happening, what else matters.”

But talk of funding transit and multimodality does resurface, episode after episode. Jessica Treat, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities and St. Paul Smart Trips, sums up the issue this way: “We’re a region where, still, really car is king and seeing past that and building for the future has been challenging.” On top of that, she says, the impacts of a lacking transit system aren’t felt equally. “There’s a lot of people who can’t access jobs because the jobs are often disconnected from where low-income people and people of color are living.”

The Twin Cities assess a quarter-cent sales tax for transit, which recently funded a new light-rail line linking Minneapolis and St. Paul’s downtowns. For years, advocacy groups have been pushing to increase the sales tax, but it’s not been easy, especially now that both the state house and senate are Republican controlled.

“There’s this notion that multimodality only benefits people in the metro area, and everyone else in the state is paying for it and not reaping any benefits. And that’s just not accurate,” says Fatehi. But the perception of an urban-rural, driver-transit rider divide has fueled partisan gridlock.

Treat hopes the podcast is able to add complexity to the conversation, and demonstrate why funding transit is important for everyone — even those who mostly drive. The website for “Here to There” also hosts a survey that invites residents to share their own commuting stories. While the majority of respondents so far have said their primary mode is a private vehicle, many also report using a vast array of tools, and many of the drivers express frustration.

“Commuting in general is awful — I would rather teleport immediately to where I want to be,” says one anonymous respondent. “I absolutely hate driving a single passenger private vehicle, but have been unable to find anyone who commutes the same trip with flexible hours to accommodate my school schedule.”

Flexibility is the subject of another episode on car-sharing, and the impact on one resident when Car2Go left Minneapolis. The podcast also takes on the damaging legacy of highway construction and a project to mitigate it, the future of electric and self-driving vehicles, and the health benefits of cycling. In a future episode — Fatehi’s favorite — the hosts go on an accessibility walk with a local disability activist, navigating a supposedly pedestrian-friendly part of town in a wheelchair and wearing goggles that simulate blindness. “I really think anyone who is a planner should have to do this,” she says.

Six episodes are online already; all 10 will be up by end of July.

Gowanus Canal Could Be New Model for Waterfront Planning

Rendering of the Gowanus Lowlands (Credit: Scape)

In the eight years since Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site, and the 10 years since the formation of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, there’s been no dearth of visions for what’s one of the most polluted waterways in the U.S.

The GCC has been planting guerilla gardens on the salt marsh for nearly a decade, developing a variety of plants that grow well in the unusual ecosystem. Where 6th Street dead-ends into the canal, the nonprofit is experimenting with different types of bioswales to absorb the stormwater that is a major cause of contamination. All the while, industrial businesses have continued to operate in the waterway, and residential construction has begun to boom on its banks.

Now, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup slated to begin at last, GCC has partnered with landscape architecture firm Scape to develop a holistic vision for the Gowanus that can accommodate that diversity of uses and improve environmental quality, without sacrificing the waterway’s idiosyncratic character.

“It’s a turning point for us, and that’s because it’s a turning point for the neighborhood right now,” says GCC Executive Director Andrea Parker. The EPA is expected to start dredging parts of the canal in the next few years, while the city is considering a neighborhood rezone that could result in denser and taller housing. As that happens, developers will be required to contribute to public spaces, like the esplanade already built by the Lightstone Group on Bond Street.

But that space, says Parker, feels fairly privatized. And the city’s existing waterfront zoning codes could produce a landscape that’s just as sterile, “maybe better suited to an open waterway, like an ocean, as opposed to a narrow canal,” she says. A rezone could result in better tools for waterfront access and more effective city investment, “so it’s really critical that we right now have a vision for how all of those investments fit together,” says Parker.

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

The proposal released last week, Gowanus Lowlands, is only a framework that lists four broad goals: creating or maintaining a cleaner urban ecosystem, a better-connected community, a network of parks, and a wild urban waterway. An in-depth master plan, to be developed over the next six to nine months, will look more closely at improving transportation options, creating green spaces and increasing waterfront access.

Gena Wirth, a project lead at Scape, says the plan will focus not only on the banks of the Gowanus, but on the entire affected neighborhood and watershed. It will take into account existing and developing commercial corridors and industrial needs, and consider how to increase urban canopy on the canal’s northern stretch near a cluster of public housing properties — a major concern identified by neighbors during GCC’s recent two years of outreach.

Navigating the myriad players, landscapes and regulatory frameworks will be a process as complicated as the Gowanus itself. Some existing interventions will get to stay — like the Sponge Park designed by Dlandstudios, and the 6th Street green corridor where GCC is testing bioswales — while others will be sacrificed to the Superfund cleanup process. A 4-million-gallon sewage tank will replace the salt lot where GCC has been planting for years and where they recently built a compost site in collaboration with the New York City Department of Sanitation.

“It’s very strategic of the GCC to be pursuing this project at this time,” says Lee Altman, another Scape project lead. The master plan aims to be not a static document but a process that will guide how the nonprofit, city, developers and other entities can work together. Over the coming months, says Parker, she’ll be talking to city officials about what is possible with the proposed rezone and new waterfront access plan.

“I really see the landscape here as something that can mediate some of the conflicts that we currently face with all of the diversity in the neighborhood,” she says. One conflict: With heavy truck traffic, the neighborhood’s still pretty hairy for cyclists where the Brooklyn Greenway crosses the canal. And though Red Hook is just on the other side of Interstate 278, it’s hard to get to from Gowanus. “That’s a pinch point I’d really like to address,” says Parker.

The plan will also consider how to create park-like spaces that aren’t your typical riverwalk. Talking to residents, “really they want texture,” says Parker. “Gowanus right now has so much character, and there’s a lot of concern that we’re going to lose that with new development.” She’d like to see different heights maintained, so that at some places people can access the waterfront, and in other they’ll have panoramic views from on high.

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

Rendering of possible bankside designs (Credit: Scape)

The plan will also look at designs for street ends. Some might end up absorbing stormwater; others could provide access down to the canal. “In a lot of areas around the canal you can be very, very close to it and not even know that it’s there,” says Wirth.

All these changes will be a long time coming. Parker estimates it will be at least 15 years before the Superfund work is complete. In that time, the public’s perception of the Gowanus is likely to change, as it has during the last decade of GCC stewardship. “I think people understand the issue a lot more than they maybe did at one point,” says Parker. Combined sewer overflows and other sources of contamination have become more of a known quantity, but that doesn’t mean Parker wants to retire urban legends about three-eyed fish just yet.

“I think that kind of storytelling about the Gowanus is really important,” she says. “The amount of urban myth and power that this waterway holds as the place that built Brooklyn, as a salt marsh that a regiment is buried in somewhere, I think that’s the stuff we really don’t want to lose.”

And she doesn’t want the public to become blinded to the true wildness of the landscape. Just a few weeks ago, a nearby venue where the GCC was hosting its 10-year anniversary party, flooded in a storm.

“And that’s what it is,” says Parker. “That’s what this place is. You can’t take away this underlying landscape, which is a salt marsh and a tidal estuary. And it’s really critical that with all of these changes that we don’t end up with a sanitized landscape.”

How Should Seattle Factor Equity Into Upzone Decision?

Downtown Seattle (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

For many, it’s an instinct, a gut feeling they get walking the crane-shadowed streets of cities in hyperdevelopment: New construction brings new money and new residents, and pushes out the old, so curbing housing development in vulnerable areas would stem displacement. But does the data back up the gut?

Last week, as part of the ongoing implementation of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, Seattle released a report that laid out two scenarios. In one, neighborhoods across the city are evenly upzoned for greater density. In the other, neighborhoods with high displacement risk and low opportunity are upzoned to a lesser degree. The report, a draft environmental impact statement for the city’s new inclusionary zoning policy, gets to the heart of an ideological battle playing out in many cities.

Dan Bertolet of the think tank Sightline Institute sums up the two sides this way: “The typical kind of progressive viewpoint on this has been, when someone comes and builds a new expensive building in the neighborhood it leads to gentrification and higher prices and displacement,” he says. “It kind of makes sense because it’s in your face and you see it. And then the other side of the argument is like from a data side, from a more regional perspective, we know that the main cause of raising housing prices and what we call economic displacement,”— in other words, people moving because they can’t afford rent anymore — “is the shortage of housing. So when you look at it from that angle, we need to build a lot more housing, so upzones are good.”

Those in the former camp, including anti-gentrification and displacement activists, may be disappointed by the findings. The environmental impact statement (EIS) is intended to measure the impacts of the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which would upzone certain neighborhoods to allow greater development, and then require developers in these areas to include a certain number of income-restricted affordable units in new buildings or pay into a fund for the city to build them elsewhere.

The program has already been implemented in the dense University District, South Lake Union and downtown neighborhoods. The EIS examines the impacts on the rest of the neighborhoods slated for inclusion.

Using an index developed as part of a Growth and Equity Analysis included in the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan, the EIS categorizes all Seattle neighborhoods according to whether they have a high or low displacement risk, and high or low opportunity. High opportunity corresponds to good access to education, transit, parks and other urban amenities. Displacement risk is calculated based on demographic data — the number of low-income and other marginalized people susceptible to housing pressure — and the demand for housing compared to supply.

In the first scenario, decisions about how much to upzone individual neighborhoods would be made irrespective of their displacement risk and access to opportunity. In the second, neighborhoods with high risk and low opportunity would be upzoned to a lesser degree. Under both options, the EIS forecasts that the number of households grew by similar amounts: 95,342 citywide under option one, 95,094 under option two. Option one produced 5,717 units of income-restricted housing; option two, 5,582 units.

Breakdown of where new units would be built under the two scenarios (alternative one was to do nothing)

But did restricting density in high-risk areas stem displacement, as measured by a change in the number of low-income households?

“We actually found that the displacement of low-income households correlated more strongly with high-opportunity areas than it did with high risk displacement areas,” says Geoffrey Wentlandt, senior planning manager at the Office of Planning and Community Development. “And what we actually found is that historically there’s a moderate correlation between the areas that have grown more in terms of adding housing units, and an increase in the percentage of low-income households. So counter to what a lot of people might think and compared to what we’ve seen in the past, areas of Seattle that have grown the most have retained the most low-income households.”

The finding reflects one made last year by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office: Bay Area communities with the greatest increase in market-rate housing were also seeing the least displacement.

In some ways, this should be intuitive, says Bertolet, as intuitive as the feeling of encroachment when new high-rises replace mom-and-pops. He points to the Central District, Seattle’s poster child of displacement: The historically black neighborhood has until recently seen little new housing development, and yet has seen the percentage of its black population dwindle from 70 percent in the 1960s to less than 20 percent today. It’s so close to downtown, says Bertolet, that regardless of upzoning, it was bound to experience housing pressure. Without new development, demand and prices for what few houses there were skyrocketed fast.

Wentlandt says upzoning should not be the primary tool to try and stem displacement, though. “There’s lots of other tools to mitigate displacement and further equity that are outside the scope of this MHA EIS proposal,” he says, pointing to the city’s Equitable Development Initiative.

Bertolet agrees. Among other strategies, the city should be ensuring local businesses can stay in place, and shoring up community institutions, he says. But despite the data, he’s also cautious of drawing the conclusion that upzoning won’t hurt communities of color, like those in the Central and International Districts, and low-income residents.

He points out that the Bay Area study was later challenged by two researchers who showed that yes, on a regional level building market-rate housing may reduce pressure and stem displacement, but that on a neighborhood level, new luxury buildings signal to wealthy buyers and developers that a neighborhood is ripe for investment, potentially changing the character of a place such that former residents feel unwelcome.

“To me it’s almost more important, the conceptual debate,” Bertolet says. Community groups are insisting that upzoning will harm them, in neighborhoods where residents’ wishes have been ignored for decades. “So the question is, should the city make its policy according to what these community groups are saying? Or should they weigh the best available data that they have, which says, that’s not going to help?” he asks.

He recommends walking a bit of a middle ground: Do upzone high-risk areas, but still concentrate more growth in the wealthier, whiter, less at-risk areas. And then allocate some of the money developers will pay if they don’t build affordable units to support anti-displacement efforts in vulnerable neighborhoods.

Public comment is being accepted on the draft EIS until July 23. Final versions of the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan and its EIS will be released this fall, followed by more public comment and a city council vote summer of next year.

U.S. DOT Offers Guidance on Public-Private Partnerships

LA Metro opened up to unsolicited proposals in hopes of involving the private sector in new projects. (Photo by Jacob G.)

As debate of the pros and cons of public-private partnerships heightens in light of President Donald Trump’s fondness for infrastructure privatization, the U.S. Department of Transportation has offered a look at the ups and downs of bringing private sector players into the conversation early.

A new (fairly technical) DOT paper outlines 17 ways to engage the private sector, across three major phases of project development: planning, pre-procurement and post-procurement. During each, the paper suggests, some approaches seem to work well, shortening timelines, fostering information sharing, improving technical and financial innovation, and reducing risk (for companies and taxpayers). Others have mixed results.

Take “unsolicited proposals,” for example — one of four top strategies the paper recommends during the planning phase.

State or local agencies can open their doors to unsolicited proposals for projects or facets of projects. LA Metro, since announcing it would accept them in February 2016, has received 75 on a variety of ideas, not only opportunities for public-private partnerships. Of these, 56 made it through an initial review that indicated the agency could consider the proposal; 16 went on to phase two for a more detailed analysis. Five projects are currently underway, and two more are being recommended for implementation.

In a webinar this week about DOT’s paper, LA Metro’s Chief Innovation Officer Joshua Schank said the decision to open up to unsolicited proposals was made in anticipation of voters passing an indefinite sales tax increase for transportation last November. The agency wanted to involve the private sector in new projects, but hadn’t been successful so far.

“In fact, we’ve struggled to develop P3s that work,” he said. LA Metro has put out requests for proposals or information before and received little enthusiasm. “[Accepting unsolicited proposals] avoids that to some extent. Because it involves the private sector earlier, we know when we go out that there is some interest.”

And though some doubted that the private sector would respond, Schank said, “we have gotten recommendations for things that we might never have considered under other circumstances because people feel free to submit things that don’t take a tremendous amount of effort.”

The downside? It takes a lot of time and effort for the agency to evaluate them all fairly in its promised 60-day time frame.

The DOT paper gives unsolicited proposals a medium-positive score for maintaining or reducing costs, and adding value and fostering innovation. The strategy garners low marks for increasing competition, however: Though a company submitting a proposal still must go through a public bid process, the agency might show bias toward the initial proposer.

What limited evidence exists suggests that unsolicited proposals work best when they can speed up an already planned and environmentally assessed project.

Several are being considered in Los Angeles around the West Santa Ana Branch and Sepulveda transit corridors. In the first instance, the line has been planned and is going through environmental review, but the community is clamoring for faster delivery.

Schank said private companies have also expressed interest in working with the agency on pre-development agreements (PDAs), another early involvement strategy covered in DOT’s paper. Using this approach, contractors would attempt to design a financially feasible plan for a relatively undefined project, and get right of first refusal to be a private partner on it should the agency decide to proceed.

Again, as with unsolicited proposals, the paper notes this approach can reduce competition and fail to decrease risk for the public sector (yet recommends it as a top strategy). PDAs also rank well for adding value and maintaining or reducing cost or schedule, and for decreasing risk for private sector partners.

Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest policy and research center, says it can be helpful to involve private players early to source ideas, but when they’re asked to make financial projections too soon, “you’re predisposing the answer.”

He points to the Value for Money (VFM) analyses often conducted in advance of large infrastructure projects, and the decision whether to use more expensive private financing (which can be quicker) or tax-exempt public financing. In 2015, he wrote in a Miami Herald op-ed, Indianapolis reviewed the VFM process for a proposed new courthouse and justice center. The city’s analysis found that using public financing would cost $516 million less than a public-private partnership. The private firm that conducted the first VFM found the private option would be cheaper.

“But we’ve found that in political [situations] when a VFM comes up with a dollar number, that becomes a fact in the discussion,” says Cohen. He says it’s good to ask the private sector what they can offer in terms of innovation and efficiency, but that doesn’t mean projects can’t still be publicly financed and owned.

He also cautions that even the idea-gathering phase can tip the scale, as it can promote a feedback loop of potentially misplaced trust. “Once you make the decision you want to do [a project as a public-private partnership] you stop evaluating whether you should do it,” says Cohen.

Boston Will Ask About Internet Access in Development Review

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Electricity? Check. Gas? Check. Water? Check. How about broadband internet?

The city of Boston is adding a new questionnaire to its development review process that will gather information on internet connectivity plans for new buildings. Created in partnership with WiredScore, a company that analyzes commercial buildings for their tech capacity (and certifies those that meet high standards), the questionnaire has no regulatory power. Rather, it makes planning for connectivity an integral and early part of the building review process, and encourages developers to think about internet provider competition and infrastructure resiliency before designs have even been approved.

This could impact both the scale of the building, and the scale of the city, says Anne Schweiger, Boston’s broadband and digital equity advocate. Reliable internet connectivity is a boon to companies looking to launch or relocate in the city, particularly the tech startups that have been drawn there in recent years. And nudging developers to take a more proactive role in reaching out to multiple internet service providers about serving their buildings could increase competition citywide and benefit residents too. Until recently, says Schweiger, a majority of Boston households had only one option for internet provider, which can mean high prices and poor service.

“If from the very beginning of designing a building and reaching out to providers you can have a pro-competition perspective on the role that your building can play in Boston’s broadband and digital equity goals, that’s a real win for everyone,” she says.

The questionnaire will now be a part of the city’s Article 80 process, which provides guidelines for the review of certain large new building projects or major renovations. Currently, it involves studying a building’s impact on transportation, the environment, historic sites and other factors. Now it will also ask about a building’s telecom room, broadband cabling, cellular reception and more. To prioritize competition, developers are asked to report which internet service providers they’ve contacted about serving the building, and their response.

“Having more of them in the building is advantageous from a competitive perspective, and from a primary and backup connectivity perspective,” says Aaron Meyerson of WiredScore. Schweiger reached out to the company, which got its start thanks to a public-private partnership with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, to advise on the components of a broadband-ready building.

Resiliency is next.

“They need to make sure that internet will never go down. It needs to be resilient and redundant,” says Meyerson. Competition helps here, and so does the actual infrastructure: Where the telecom room is located, whether there’s a secondary set of cabling in case the first goes down.

Lastly is capacity for growth. Technologies are sure to change. Is the building equipped to run more cable, to provide faster service to more tenants if internet-hungry businesses move in?

“These kinds of criteria related to connectivity are very rarely part of the official process of reviewing buildings or even the official process of most developers,” says Meyerson. “It’s not highly regulated. It’s not like electricity or gas or water, yet it’s just as important.”

With Boston growing rapidly, and in need of 53,000 new housing units by 2030 to meet demand, “we see this as an incredible opportunity,” says Schweiger. “This is 53,000 opportunities to get broadband right.”

One component will be folding internet connectivity into the building process, and not as an afterthought. Currently, developers will sometimes finish a project, then call a service provider to hook up internet, and the provider will need to dig up newly finished sidewalks to lay cable. Schweiger hopes that bringing broadband into the review process early will cut down on these post-construction disruptions.

“It’s getting that conversation started. It’s telling them, ‘think about capacity and resiliency and redundancy at a point when it’s quite affordable to do so.’ They’re designing a building from scratch, it would be great if they were building these things in from the very beginning,” says Meyerson.

Schweiger also expects the city to learn a lot from the questionnaire responses — about why an internet service provider wouldn’t work with a certain building, or why a developer wouldn’t reach out to multiple. Based on what they learn, the broadband-ready guidelines could become more codified in the future. Boston is the first city to work with WiredScore on this type of questionnaire, but other cities, like Loma Linda, California, have incorporated fiber-optic readiness into their municipal code. In Loma Linda, the city runs a high-speed, fiber-optic network, and requires that new residences and commercial buildings connect to it.​

Akron Is Turning a Closed Freeway Into a Pop-Up Forest

Rendering of the Innerbelt National Forest (Credit: Hunter Franks)

Akron’s Innerbelt freeway was a failure, pretty much from the start. Despite a 1963 city report warning that isolating stable neighborhoods by slicing a freeway through them would accelerate their decline, the design did just that, gutting black neighborhoods and cutting them off from downtown. Political support waned; public meetings grew contentious. The highway was never finished, and the stretch that was built failed to achieve its only goal. Meant to speed traffic between downtown and suburbs, the Innerbelt only saved commuters traveling westbound on Interstate 77 an average of 1.25 minutes.

Nor did it stem the flow of businesses from the city core to the suburbs. “It is extremely doubtful that the new freeway, even if completed, will do much to attract retail businesses or shoppers downtown,” reads a 1977 city report. Built for 120,000 vehicles a day, only about 18,000 use it daily.

Now, most of the Innerbelt is slated for closure over the next year. One mile will be downsized from highway to surface street, leaving 35 miles of concrete possibility. With the city striving to attract residents and businesses downtown once again, two Knights Cities Challenge winners are imagining new uses for the space that could reestablish connections between severed neighborhoods.

“For Akron in particular it’s interesting because it’s a city that’s been built on the automobile and on the tire industry, to take a piece of that history and say that maybe it’s not working as well as it could be for us anymore,” says Hunter Franks, artist and 2017 grant winner. He received $214,240 to create the “Innerbelt National Forest,” a temporary park on two acres of the former roadway. Two years ago, he received another Knight Cities grant for 500 Plates, a community dinner held on the freeway, where he asked residents what they wanted the space to become.

“Overwhelmingly we heard that people wanted to see green space and people wanted to see some sort of public space that connected people,” says Franks.

Jonathan Morschl, board member of the West Hill Community Development Corporation, which serves one of the neighborhoods adjacent to the highway, agrees.

“It’s really been a dead link for decades,” he says. Where the Towpath Trail abuts the Innerbelt in West Hill, linking the neighborhood to downtown, Morschl sees people beating their own paths down to reach it, suggesting to him that there is a demand for connections other than the highway.

Last year, Morschl, an architectural designer, also won a Knight Cities grant to wild up the Innerbelt: $120,000 to design a mountain bike park on about 2 acres of the former freeway. Still in the design phase, he says he’d love for his installation to coincide with the Innerbelt National Forest and to work with Franks on public outreach. Morschl has a vision for a temporary mountain bike park, “but if the community doesn’t deem it necessary, it’s not going to be successful,” he says. “Bringing in a project like Hunter’s can be a very cool temporary solution for now, and it can open people’s eyes to what they would want there.”

Franks plans to work with local community groups and speak to neighbors about the future of the Innerbelt after the temporary installations are gone. One mile of the freeway is already closed as it’s transformed into a surface street. The remainder of the freeway should be decommissioned by spring 2018; Franks hopes to install that summer.

First, though, he’ll talk to neighbors, University of Akron students, and others about what they want to see there. Light installations, trees, seating, and other elements are all possible in the short-term. “The goal is also to create a conversation about the long-term use of the space,” he says.

The city has no concrete plans for it yet. A park is possible, though it could also be developed commercial or residential. Morschl says right now the city isn’t growing at a pace where housing is a pressing need, but, close as it is to downtown, the site could be very attractive for that.

Chester Announces “Community-Based” Public-Private Partnership

Mouth of Chester Creek on the Delaware River in Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester, Pennsylvania’s recently formed Stormwater Authority announced a partnership last week that aims to help the city meet a federally mandated sewer system fix while also creating jobs for local contractors and spurring economic development.

The city, which is about 18 miles south of Philadelphia, has a combined sewer-stormwater system — and has until 2018 to come up with a plan to minimize flooding and eliminate sewage overflow into the Delaware River and other waterways. To do so, they’ve turned to private company Corvias, in what the city is calling a “community-based” public-private partnership. With an anticipated $50 million from a new stormwater fee, Corvias will plan and implement 350 acres of green stormwater infrastructure, and manage that system for the next 20 to 30 years.

The company took a similar approach in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which was also under a mandate to eliminate polluted runoff. There, as in Chester, Corvias aims to stick to the “high road infrastructure concept,” says Greg Cannito, Corvias project lead.

Cities’ rules around procurement and funding and a lack of collaboration among departments can keep them from realizing all of the potential benefits a single infrastructure project could have, he says. So, for example, when departments are required to choose contractors based solely on lowest cost, they may not be able to hire local, even though developing a loyal local workforce could save money in the long-term — and improve economic prospects for the municipality overall.

In Prince George’s County, Corvias was able to hire 80 percent local businesses and 95 percent minority subcontractors. Nearly a third of all work hours are being done by residents. “It’s not just about building the infrastructure, it’s about building the infrastructure that creates employment,” says Cannito. Those same contractors will carry on maintenance work for the next three decades. “So what you do is you start to create actual expertise, experience, and a base amount of revenue for those small local businesses that they can then go and compete in the region,” he says.

Corvias will take the same approach in Chester, using green stormwater infrastructure as the catalyst. With a $1 million grant from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, which funds sewer, stormwater, and drinking water projects in the state, Corvias and the city of Chester have identified 350 acres for potential projects. They’re focused around a major commercial and residential corridor that is subject to combined sewer overflows and includes City Hall, a regional rail station and a high school.

Cannito says developing green stormwater infrastructure here will not only minimize flooding and toxic runoff, but also add aesthetic charm and possibly pave the way for other investments the city needs.

For example, Corvias and the city are looking at whether there are brownfield sites within the project area that could be addressed simultaneously. And they hope that the improvements might attract other amenities, like a major grocery store or more recreation opportunities.

Both Cannito and Horace Strand, executive director of Chester’s Stormwater Authority, stress that Corvias won’t be choosing or developing these ancillary projects, just speeding them along faster than the city might be able to on its own. “The community drives the mechanism; the community determines what is in their best interest; the community decides what needs to be done,” says Strand. “The private partner comes in and asks, ‘how can we help you fulfill your vision?’”

And if Corvias doesn’t meet guidelines agreed to with the city — like a minimum local hire requirement — the company won’t get paid.

They’ll also ensure projects are well maintained for the next 30 years. Garbage can make eyesores of the best-intended bioswales, but city departments, funded on a yearly basis, sometimes slip on the upkeep. “Everybody loves getting a rain garden, everybody likes getting an improved park,” says Cannito. “But what they really want to know is, how is it maintained?”

By this fall, Corvias hopes to have green stormwater sites and possible ancillary projects scoped out. At the same time, the city hopes to start assessing a new stormwater fee on commercial and industrial properties that would raise the necessary $50 million. Corvias will also seek outside financing, and begin to work with subcontractors to build capacity. The goal is to start construction on the first stormwater projects next spring.

Austin Zoning Overhaul Draws Critics From Both Sides of Density Fight

Austin, Texas (Photo by Stuart Seeger, Flickr) 

Knowing that the rollout of new draft zoning maps would send tempers flaring, Austin Mayor Steve Adler encouraged the public to “chill out” upon their April release. But so far the city’s CodeNext zoning overhaul process continues to provoke strong reactions, virtually from all sides.

Neighborhood preservationists, like the Austin Neighborhoods Council, worry the new code will dramatically increase density in residential neighborhoods. Urbanist groups like AURA think the plan doesn’t go far enough in addressing the city’s affordability crisis. Council Member Ann Kitchen is encouraging patience. The zoning code released in February and the maps released in April are only drafts. Both are going through public comment periods now; the planning and zoning commissions will produce new drafts by the end of the year, and council won’t vote on a final version until spring 2018. “I would say we’re in the early stages of an iterative process,” says Kitchen.

Nonetheless, Eric Goff of AURA worries there’s a lot of work ahead. “It’s possible to redeem it, and we’re going to really try our hardest to do that, but without significant revision to the code and to the maps, it could even be a worse outcome [than what we have now],” he says.

Austin’s current code is, he says, “completely onerous.” On this point, most everyone agrees. Decades of adding conditional overlays to the base zoning has created layer upon layer of complexity, making the code difficult to navigate, even for something as simple as adding a porch to a single-family home.

“Finding what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do is like a treasure hunt,” says Kitchen. After a comprehensive plan update failed in the ’80s, individual neighborhoods were permitted to draft their own land use plans, which now layer awkwardly on top of the existing code.

Jen Todd, a senior planner in Austin’s planning and zoning department, gives the following example: A property may have base commercial zoning, with an overlay for mixed-use development, and then a conditional overlay on top of that as part of a neighborhood plan. In the current code, the requirements for all of those layers would be found in different sections.

“When it’s hard to use, that means it’s a more lengthy and expensive process both for neighbors and for developers. It’s very clunky, it doesn’t work well,” says Kitchen.

It also doesn’t serve the needs of a city that is growing rapidly. Housing is quickly becoming unaffordable to many in Austin, a city dominated by single-family homes and lacking a strong public transportation network. Austin updated its comprehensive plan in 2012. The CodeNext zoning overhaul is intended to help the city achieve the goals laid out in that new vision, called Imagine Austin. Those goals include promoting multimodal transit, affordability, and a more compact and connected city.

Jeb Boyt, of the Alliance for Public Transportation, thinks CodeNext is on the right track for some of these goals. He’s happy that the draft promotes a system in which denser housing is concentrated around neighborhood centers that would be linked by transit corridors. He’s glad those corridors and the center city overall now have a form-based code. But he thinks the plan still fails to categorize as “centers” some areas that clearly are, which means they wouldn’t get the denser housing he thinks they need.

Goff agrees that the plan still makes it too difficult for the city to add “missing middle housing” — including smaller unit sizes and residential property add-ons such as backyard cottages or granny flats. The draft reduces parking requirements, but Goff still thinks they’re too high. And there’s plenty of little details he takes issue with, and has submitted as comments: New dimension requirements for buildings could threaten heritage trees, for examples, and a new 10-foot ceiling height requirement would make construction more expensive.

He also thinks the draft is still overly complex. Right now, it’s over 1,100 pages long, and has expanded the number of zone types from 17 to 26. By his estimation, one of those types doesn’t appear to show up anywhere on the map. (You can compare the existing and proposed zoning maps yourself here.)

Proposed vs. existing zoning maps (Credit: CodeNext)

Todd says the length and number of types are actually a product of the draft code’s clarity. Remember that mixed-use commercial property with a neighborhood plan overlay? To renovate such a lot under existing code, one would need to seek out the requirements for each layer in a different section. CodeNext has instead created a new type of zone that tries to achieve what that string of layers was striving for. No more flipping chapter to chapter to understand what’s possible on a property, but that means the draft also has a lot more repetitive language, adding to its length.

“One thing it does is it puts everything in one place, which of course makes it longer,” says Kitchen. “I don’t think it’s more complicated, but nor do I think that it’s done.”

Right now, the city is receiving comments on the draft maps. Comments on the zoning document, and a series of public information sessions, ended last week. In them, the city heard from both sides: urbanists like Goff and Boyt, and neighborhood preservationists like Mike Lavigne of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. He told KXAN he worried the code would allow for triplexes to be built in his neighborhood. “This would essentially increase that by 50 percent, the number of units allowed on a lot, and then decrease the parking by about 50 percent,” he said.

He also felt the code would not respect his neighborhood’s plan. “That’s something we worked very hard on as a neighborhood and is not respected in the new code,” he said. Todd says CodeNext is required to incorporate neighborhood plans, not dismiss them, and so far that’s how it’s drafted. For urbanists, that’s the problem: Many of the neighborhood plans were more concerned with protecting a certain character than promoting affordability.

Boyt thinks the draft can be amended to satisfy those needs, depending on how CodeNext staff respond to public comment. Goff isn’t feeling optimistic. Kitchen suggests all of this is premature. There’s plenty of time, she says, to get this right.

Can a Memphis Park Ever Be Inclusive With Jefferson Davis Around?

Children paint a mural on the roadway between Mississippi River Park and Memphis Park. (Photo by Edward Valibus)

Memphis has enhanced two parks and a public library through its participation in Reimagining the Civic Commons, a national initiative intended to promote inclusivity in public space in five U.S. cities. But one of those parks has a Jefferson Davis statue, and the other was, until recently, named Confederate Park, and critics say the site choices undermine the very goals of the project.

“It’s just kind of a cloud that hangs over things,” Memphis resident and social justice organizer Tami Sawyer says, referring to the statue of Davis and one of KKK founding member Nathan Bedford Forrest a few blocks away. “No matter what colorful basketball court you throw down there, whatever sign you put up, Jefferson Davis is still being called a hero.”

Memphis’ piece of the philanthropically funded Reimagining the Civic Commons was dubbed Fourth Bluff, and Sawyer thinks any project intended to foster inclusivity shouldn’t have started with these parks — unless the organizers were ready to tackle the racist legacy head on.

Tami Sawyer, in front of the Jefferson Davis statue in downtown Memphis (Courtesy of Tami Sawyer)

The two parks, located along the downtown waterfront, are separated by a steep change in elevation and a road with fast-moving traffic. Though they’re close together, they don’t feel connected. As part of a series of activations, the city closed the roadway to traffic for the summer, painted on basketball courts, and added shade, lighting, chairs, ping-pong, and other games.

The goal, says Dorchelle Spence, vice president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, a project partner, is threefold: Knit together underutilized public spaces, encourage connectivity to nearby downtown and economic development, and create a space that’s welcoming to all residents and encourages them to meet. She says the Mississippi River is a point of pride in the city, and a place that “no matter what neighborhood you live in, you feel some ownership and connection to.”

So far, some Fourth Bluff pop-ups have been more successful at drawing a diverse crowd than others. Attendees of a pop-up ice rink this winter represented a wide range of ages, races, socioeconomic statuses and Memphis neighborhoods, according to information participants provided on waivers. Same for the basketball courts. But events like a pop-up beer garden drew primarily from downtown workers, and didn’t bring in attendees from other neighborhoods.

“What we’re starting to find is the more active uses bring in the more diversity, whereas just coming down to hear music and drink beer appeals to not as broad an audience,” says Spence.

These are the lessons the city is hoping to learn at Fourth Bluff over the course of the three-year project, and to apply to other city parks. Permanent changes will also include landscaping the lower park as a children’s play area and adding a space for fishing and launching nonmotorized boats. The upper park may get a collapsible stage, gardens and a dedicated space for yoga. Last week the bimonthly free yoga class there drew over 100 people. One wonders who chose not to attend because Jefferson Davis was there too.

“There have been people that said the presence of that monument would not stop me from going to an event. Some artists have said it would not stop me from performing in that park,” says Maria Fuhrmann, who represents the city of Memphis on the Civic Commons project. “But we’re starting to hear from people that say this monument absolutely does prevent me from wanting to visit this park or wanting to go to an event here, and that’s important info that we need.”

She says the city chose these parks intentionally in order to further a conversation around what should happen to confederate monuments. After the city voted to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in 2015, Tennessee state lawmakers voted to require approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission before moving statues of historic military figures. Memphis’ application was denied. The city has appealed, but the commission may once again change the rules to prevent the statue’s removal later this month.

All of this applies only to Forrest. The city has not asked for a waiver to remove Davis, only to temporarily change the name of the park in which he sits. In both cases, Sawyer says the city could do more, like sell the parks to nonprofits for a dollar, allow them to remove the statues, and then buy them back. Not doing so sends a message to black residents, she says, and casts a pall over the Fourth Bluff project. “To me it says we don’t care,” says Sawyer.

Two days after New Orleans removed a confederate monument, Sawyer was at Memphis’ Jefferson Davis statue to give an interview. Confederate apologists were there waving flags.

“What if I go take my 11-year-old and 4-year-old nieces to the Fourth Bluff on some Friday and some white supremacists show up with their gear?” she asks. “I gotta wait till that happens? I gotta take that risk with my family and myself and my friends and my community?”

She’s organizing a June 20 community conversation about the statues. The Fourth Bluff is gearing up for another round of Friday pop-ups, and a whole summer of programming, including a beer garden and outdoor concerts. Sawyer won’t be there.

“No, I’m not going to any concert,” she says. “Jay Z could perform at Fourth Bluff, I’ll be at home.”

In Houston Ice Houses, a Designer Sees a Model for Public Space

Rendering of an ice house pavilion along Brays Bayou in Houston’s Third Ward (Photo by David Richmond)

In a city with what Rice University architecture graduate David Richmond calls “an infrastructure of staying inside,” Houston’s ice houses stand out. While much of downtown is connected by underground tunnels that keep workers sheltered from the sun, and while many commute via air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office, Richmond says, “the ice houses are a rare public space in which you are taking in the city and the weather and all of those elements.

Richmond, who’s a project manager at Metalab Studios in Houston, thinks the ice house form could be the basis of a new type of public gathering space along Brays Bayou.

A place where residents could buy ice in the era before refrigeration, many of the houses have since been converted into humble bars selling ice cold beers. They’re simple spaces, spread out through Houston’s neighborhoods, open to the elements via their retractable garage doors. In Houston, this permeability makes them unique, says Richmond, who spent a year photographing over 40 ice houses with the support of a Rice Design Alliance grant.

“Opening up to the city is so rare here,” he says. As he put it in an article for the Houston Chronicle last year: “The simple move of leaving those [garage] doors open overturns the last 50 years of Houston living — hot days stay hot, ugly streets are visible, bad smells can linger, and humidity can ruin your day.” They’re a far cry from the hermetically sealed office buildings of downtown.

And yet, they’ve retained their place in the Houston architectural lexicon. Though several historic ice houses closed during the year Richmond spent photographing them, a handful of bars emulating their form opened as well, two of them in former gas stations. To qualify as part of this “evolving type,” the ice houses Richmond documented needed to have a porous relationship between interior and exterior, and to be a true neighborhood bar — a standalone, not in a row of bars and restaurants.

In his research, he paid attention to both the bars’ interior and their view of the outdoors. Because of Houston’s lack of zoning, and because ice houses provided a vital service and were thus distributed throughout the city, they tend to be located in unexpected places — under freeways, in medians between high-speed roads, landscapes normally reserved for cars.

Exterior of an ice house turned bar (Photo by David Richmond)

View across the street from the same ice house (Photo by David Richmond)

Richmond’s goal, though, wasn’t just to glorify these old beer shacks, but to explore how their permeable form might be applied to other city spaces actually meant for gathering. He hit upon the extensive bayou restoration projects currently underway in Houston, transforming the concretized bayous from purely drainage ditches into a series of parks and greenways.

“Having hike and bike trails is really great for activity in the neighborhood, but if you don’t have a place to go to, it ends up being a path without a node,” says Richmond. Buffalo Bayou — which runs through downtown, touching mostly wealthy, white neighborhoods — has received the most visible arts and recreation projects, but Richmond thinks Brays Bayou, which runs through some of the city’s most diverse ethnic enclaves, could use more such nodes.

In a May article for the Houston Chronicle, he proposed a series of six pavilions along the length of the bayou, based on the ice house form. Each is, as Richmond calls it, a simple study of a square: a steel square in the center, partially enclosed by a glass square, outfitted with curtains that can create yet one more layer of separation between interior and exterior. Though Houston is the United States’ most diverse city, Richmond says its neighborhoods look architecturally rather similar. He doesn’t want to dictate how neighborhoods would use their squares, so each would customize it to their needs.

Rendering of an ice house pavilion used as a farmers market (Photo by David Richmond)

Rendering of an ice house pavilion on a movie night (Photo by David Richmond)

“One neighborhood might need fresh produce and a farmers market type. One might be more useful to have a project like Project Row Houses, that in addition to art provides childcare services and career building for young mothers in the Third Ward,” says Richmond. “I wanted to create one form and copy it six times so that the form was always the same, and differences would be purely from the neighborhood it was in.”

Richmond notes that Houston, with its sprawl and open space, has a unique opportunity; while dense East Coast and European cities had to set aside public squares early in their histories, Houston has the land to build them up from scratch. After his recent article was published, the Houston Parks Board reached out to Richmond to have a conversation about a potential collaboration, though Richmond does not yet know what will become of it.

Data Bike to Hit the Trails in Des Moines

The High Trestle Trail, one segment of central Iowa’s extensive trail system (Photo by Phil Roeder, via Flickr)

This summer, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) will help map conditions on over 600 miles of bicycle trails around Des Moines. Using an e-bike equipped with cameras and an iPhone, INHF staff will ride to capture data about surface roughness and images of the trails.

The Iowa Data Bike, a joint project with the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Iowa Department of Public Health, aims to identify which sections of trail need maintenance so municipalities can direct their dollars wisely.

“We’re seeing this push on making data-driven decisions,” says Marcus Coenen, an MPO planner who has led the Data Bike project. “And then the other element of that is we have fiscally constrained dollars, so we don’t have as much funding as we had in the past. But priorities keep expanding, so we really need to have good data to say, these are really the segments we need to do next.”

The electric-assist cargo bike — purchased from a local Des Moines shop — will capture three types of information: the roughness of the trail, indicating its condition; geotagged photos of trail segments so those conditions can be indexed to actual sites; and 360-degree imagery of the trails that can be uploaded to Google Street View, allowing potential riders a glimpse of what they might find before they embark. Using an electric bike, says Coenen, will not only make the project easier for a rider, but the consistent speed will also help with data collection.

The Iowa Data Bike (Credit: Des Moines Area MPO)

The INHF helped to preserve and develop many of the trails that make up the Central Iowa Regional Trails system, but most are now owned by their local municipalities. It’ll be up to them to make the improvements that the data suggests. Todd Ashby, director of the MPO, says doing so should be in their best interest.

“Trails have become an important part of the cultural experience in central Iowa, as well as an economic benefit to those areas,” he says.

Andrea Boulton, director of trails and greenways at INHF, says the undertaking will also help her organization and the municipalities that own and manage the trails to figure out where better connectivity is needed. Most trails are linked in a loose hub-and-spoke system, but some, like the Summerset Trail, are still cut off. INHF is actively working to connect it now.

“As we continue to grow these systems, we also don’t want to neglect what we currently have,” says Boulton. “But we need a better understanding of what we currently have.” She suspects the data will show worse trail conditions farther from the urban sections, and after the rains the region has seen recently, need for repair on low-lying sections of trail.

A dedicated intern and other INHF staff will spend the next few months riding the bike along the trail system in two-hour spurts — the length of its battery life. Boulton says the project meets many needs: While the MPO initiated it in order to drive smart investment, INHF will also be learning how to improve connectivity, and collecting information for a navigation app that will alert riders to points of interest along the trails.

The Iowa Department of Public Health also gave financial support to the project because of its potential health benefits. The agency has partnered with the MPO before to promote complete streets projects.

“Public health has lots and lots of evidence about when you improve the built environment, it makes it easier for people to be physically active, but the MPO is so much better suited to advocate for that,” says Sarah Taylor Watts, physical activity coordinator at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Right now, the MPO is still testing out the equipment. INHF staff will start mapping in a few weeks. Boulton expects the project to take several months.

What Turned One Cyclist Into Philly Bike-Share’s Most Frequent Rider

A cohort of the Digital Skills and Bike Thrills class (Photo by Darren Burton, Courtesy of the Office of Adult Education)

In a world of ride-hailing apps and sidewalk internet kiosks, bicycling remains one of the lowest-tech thrills available to an urbanite on a daily basis. But signing up for and using bike-share? That takes a little tech savvy.

Last year, realizing digital literacy could be a barrier to participation, Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share system partnered with the city’s Office of Adult Education to offer a class they call “Digital Skills and Bike Thrills.” In it, mostly low-income students of a wide range of ages, educational and racial backgrounds learn how to navigate both city streets and common computer needs.

“Those are two huge fear factors for people: A, getting on one of those blue bikes and riding down Market Street, and then B, getting on the internet and using it in a functional way,” says Jennifer Kobrin, director of digital initiatives at Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education. Though teaching them together may seem an uneasy marriage, “I think it’s also a testament to how much technology is integrated into everything,” she says.

Indego’s monthly pass sign-ups are done online. An app helps navigate stations and displays bike availability. Just checking out a bike requires some tech skills. In a city that has made big strides toward bike-share inclusivity — siting stations widely across the city, not just in wealthy or central locales, and offering a cash payment option — computer skills remained a potential obstacle.

“We saw a lot of people were interested in bike-share but were really nervous about going online logging in and creating a profile,” says Claudia Setubal, who manages the program from the Indego side. “Indego was really interested in accessibility, and particularly figuring out what the barriers to those using bike-share were, and to knock them down as much as possible.”

The classes grew out of another existing city program: Keyspot, a network of rec centers and community organizations that offer free computer use and training in digital skills. As part of its outreach to low-income communities, Indego began advertising to Keyspot clients, but soon it became clear that a deeper collaboration was possible. With a grant from the Innovation Fund, which provides resources to city employees to test out new ideas, the first cohort of the four-week course ran last spring, free to students.

To date, there have been four cohorts, the most recent graduating just last week. About 20 students start each class, and about 61.1 percent complete it — a higher rate than most adult education classes, says Kobrin. (The average is around 50 percent.) In the first three cohorts (data is not yet available for the fourth) students were mostly between the ages of 22 and 30 or 50 and 59. The majority were African-American. Well over half the graduates were earning less than $20,000 a year.

Orientation takes place in person, at a Keyspot location near a bike-share station, in part because Indego has realized many people need a personal touch when they’re just starting out. Facilitators help students sign up, and they receive a one-month free Indego membership. The rest of the classwork takes place online, with students completing tasks like planning a cycling route on Google Maps or searching YouTube for bicycling videos. In all, classwork takes up about five to 15 hours a week. Throughout the course, group rides get students used to bike laws and etiquette, and facilitators are available for in-person, extra help sessions for computer skills. Upon completion, graduates get another six months of Indego access for free.

Graduation takes place in person too, and according to Kobrin and Setubal, it’s a celebratory affair. “People are really just thrilled,” says Setubal. “Every time we have a graduation, someone cries.”

Setubal says graduates’ ridership rates are on par with the average member, though it’s not always easy to track renewals — how many maintain their Indego membership after the free six months ends — because people might sign up on a month-to-month basis, forgoing a membership in the winter, for example. But, she notes, the most prolific rider in the whole Indego system is a Digital Skills and Bike Thrills graduate. In six months, he’s taken over 500 trips.

That’s Ed Berry, who just got a smartphone for the first time last year. “I’m a Luddite. I’ve never really touched a computer or anything,” he says. He loves to bike, but in the 25 years he’s lived in Philadelphia, he’s had five bikes stolen. When the last one was taken three years ago, he didn’t buy another.

The course fit his needs perfectly: Berry learned to use his new phone, and he tried out the bike-share system, which is virtually theft-proof. It took a while to get used to the bikes, as they’re heavier and less navigable than the bikes he was used to, but Berry nonetheless uses them daily. He’s even visited every one of Indego’s more than 100 stations.

The next cohort starts next week, at the People’s Emergency Center in West Philly.

Santa Monica Park’s Toilets, Grass Are Getting New Water Source

Treatment equipment at Los Amigos Park (Credit: City of Santa Monica)

As part of a citywide goal to become water self-sufficient by 2020, Santa Monica, California, unveiled a new water reuse system in a park this week. The rainwater and other city water runoff that naturally makes its way to Los Amigos Park will now be captured, treated onsite, and reused for irrigation and to flush park toilets. While Santa Monica has long been at the forefront of reusing dry weather runoff — water that flows into the streets from sprinkler overflow, car-washing and uses unrelated to rain — the city hopes this project will pave the way for more distributed water recapture systems.

“We’ve been facing longer and deeper droughts, seeing those things happen over the years, but particularly in response to the latest drought, realized that we can’t forever rely on importing water from the Colorado River and northern California. It’s not sustainable, but it’s also more expensive water,” says Dean Kubani, chief sustainability officer and assistant public works director. “So it really only makes sense to capture these resources that we’ve been overlooking for years — and literally letting run down the drain and into the ocean — and reusing those rather than impacting landscapes far away from us to buy water.”

For over 15 years, the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility has been treating an average of 500,000 gallons a day, which can then be used for irrigation or in buildings equipped to use recycled water. Many of the city’s parks and cemeteries are watered this way. The Los Amigos project is much smaller, predicted to offset about 500,000 gallons of water a year. But it represents a sea change in the permitting and regulation of street runoff reuse projects.

While guidelines had been established for treating stormwater captured from rooftops, Kubani explains that “water running off street is going to be a lot dirtier,” and must be treated differently. Until recently, he continues, “It’s been difficult to permit these types of systems, because there are a lot of public health requirements you have to meet for reusing water, particularly for reuse inside a building. If there’s any likelihood that some person or animal will come in contact with it, you basically have to make it so that it’s almost drinking water safe.”

After years of work with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and state Division of Drinking Water, the city was able to refine those requirements while keeping stringent treatment standards intact. Water captured at Los Amigos Park will be filtered of solids and UV-treated to kill pathogens before being used for irrigation and in toilets. The design takes advantage of an existing storm drain line for capture, and stores water below ground. The only visible component will be the treatment equipment, which will be signed for educational purposes. Los Amigos Park is jointly managed by the city and the Santa Monica Malibu School District.

“Mostly what other municipalities or other agencies do is they’ll capture rainwater from the roof or perhaps take runoff from off-site to use for irrigation, but the whole purpose of treating it for indoor use for flushing, that’s the trailblazing aspect of this project,” says Rick Valte, city engineer.

Los Amigos will be closely monitored to inform future projects, with the city tracking how much water is coming in, the quality of the water coming out, and more. “This is going to ultimately help to design better projects like this, bigger projects like this in other locations,” says Kubani.

All of those water recapture projects are part of a larger goal to meet all of Santa Monica’s water needs locally by 2020. Another initiative, the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project, will aim to catch about 6 million gallons of water in three areas of city, treat it and return it to the groundwater table. Another component of that project will siphon off and treat water from sewer lines. Santa Monica currently sources about 75 percent of its water from groundwater, but with intermittent droughts, that source has not been replenishing itself as quickly as needed to get to 100 percent.

Greater conservation on the part of businesses and individuals will be required too, says Kubani. The city is currently using about 20 percent less water than in 2013, in part due to a strong conservation push during the recent drought. But since Governor Jerry Brown announced the end of the drought emergency earlier this year, usage has been creeping back up. The connections are also more complicated than they might first appear. Higher rates of conservation also meant less dry weather runoff, as people used less water on their lawns and cars.

“Putting all of it together is what gets us down to be able to live within our means,” says Kubani.

Tom Ford, marine biologist and executive director of the Bay Foundation, says projects like the one at Los Amigos Park also benefit ocean life, as fewer pollutants wash into the bay. Sewage discharge, solids from street runoff and other toxins kill off organisms at the bottom of the food chain, which in turn impacts the animals that eat them, all the way up to top predators.

“If we built more of these, we can knock down the pollutant loading to the bay by capturing water and the pollutants it carries before it gets out there into the surface waters,” says Ford.

Indianapolis Green Space Design Features a Highway View

Rendering of the view from the Idle (Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

Indianapolis will soon have an oasis in the unlikeliest of places: a grassy hill between two interstates. The brainchild of local restaurant owner (and Jimmy Buffett’s stage manager) Tom Battista, “The Idle,” as the project has been dubbed, will be a simple, low-cost viewing stand where idlers can watch the traffic pass them by. Battista also hopes it strengthens the connections among four neighborhoods: Fletcher Place, Holy Rosary, Bates-Hendricks, and Fountain Square, which were severed when the interstates were built.

“After the ’60s and ’70s, not only did the interstates wreck our town and go right through the middle of it, the banks all redlined the [surrounding] districts,” says Battista. The areas where roads dead-ended into the highway fared poorly. In recent years, the completion of Indianapolis’ 8-mile Cultural Trail has linked some of these neighborhoods back together, but Battista, who owns a restaurant in Fletcher Place, felt the grassy median between them still represented a missed opportunity.

He first noticed the green space while crossing the interstates on Virginia Avenue to get from his restaurant to the bank in Fountain Square. Though the Cultural Trail runs along Virginia Avenue, “you’re walking across and it’s like a half-mile of concrete bridges, and entries, and cut-throughs, it’s horrible,” says Battista. “It’s a total dividing line between the two neighborhoods.”

But just off to the south was a grassy hill sloping down to the highway, which is below street grade. Battista climbed a guardrail to look around. Nonprofit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful had planted trees on the 1-acre plot, and he was surprised to find the space oddly peaceful. The noise of the traffic wasn’t too loud; the skyline was visible in the northwest. He admits it doesn’t sound like a beautiful spot, but swears once he takes people to check it out, they see the appeal.

(Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

“You’re sitting there, and you’re present right there. All the people that are in their cars, the river of cars down below, they’re trying to get somewhere. And they’re trying to get somewhere fast. And when it gets to be rush hour and everything slows to a crawl, you can just feel their anxiety,” he says. “And you’re sitting there saying, god, where are all of these people going. So your blood pressure is going down and theirs is going up.”

Battista says he wasn’t inspired by the large window on the High Line that lets visitors watch cars speed by on 10th Avenue on New York City, but “it did reinforce the idea that people would sit and watch traffic,” he says.

For The Idle, Battista envisioned something a little more secluded: a snaking path leading down from Virginia Avenue to a viewing stand, with repurposed stadium chairs and a fabric awning reclaimed by local group People for Urban Progress. A new entrance to the hill would be cut from the guardrail, right off the Cultural Trail.

(Credit: Kurt Nettleton)

He started to approach stakeholders: Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc., Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Indiana Department of Transportation, the city.

“Although everybody said it’s a great idea, the people from INDOT said well, we’ve never done anything like that,” says Battista. They needed approval from the Federal Highway Administration, which owns the land, and couldn’t get it. After four and a half years of agitating for his vision, Battista got a meeting with FHA officials. They asked for more detailed plans and drawings — they were supplied by landscape architect Jeff Brown and civil engineer Jennifer Roberts — but also tried to put a damper on his hopes.

Then a new INDOT director added support for the project. The city agreed to be the responsible party. They came together with FHA to make a deal: The Idle could be on the space for 10 years, and FHA would retain the right to take it back if and when they want to expand the highway.

Now, the only barrier is funding. The Idle is currently trying to raise $41,000, which will be matched by the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority if met. With 23 days left, the campaign is over halfway there.

The first step of implementation will be to surround the whole site with fencing to keep people off the highways. Benches made from ash, a tree that has fallen victim to disease in Indianapolis lately, will also be positioned at the entrance from the Cultural Trail. So will a cheeky art installation, a nod to the appeal of The Idle as a semisecret spot: A sign at the entrance will read, “Danger! Enter at Your Own Risk!” Another sign, closer to the stadium seating will read, “Even more danger!”

New Orleans Artists Take on Real Estate’s Loaded Terms

Daiquiri Rene Jones, Mariama Eversley, and Michael “Quess?” Moore perform at the first installation of Blights Out’s Living Glossary project. (Credit: Blights Out)

“Auction [awk-shun n], noun

Also called public sale. A publically held sale at which property or goods are sold to the highest bidder
A system where potential buyers place competitive bids on assets and services. The asset or service in question will sell to the party that places the highest bid. In most cases, sellers will pay a listing fee to the auctioneers, regardless of whether the item actually sells for the desired price.
[Image of a slave auction in New Orleans’ ‘luxurious’ St. Louis Hotel]”

Blights Out, Living Glossary project broadside: Auction

On the first of this month, 20 blocks from a “May Day Antifacist Karaoke and Barbecue” just then coalescing around New Orleans’ soon-to-be-removed monument to Jefferson Davis, a group of artists and affordable housing advocates took on what they see as a subtler manifestation of white supremacy: the auction.

On a vacant lot in Treme, beside Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar (which had just that week been served eviction papers), three performers read aloud from a script linking the city’s history of slave auctions to its modern forms of repossessing and auctioning blighted properties. A culmination of years of research by Mariama Eversley and other members of transdisciplinary artist collective Blights Out, the event was the first in a series of investigations into common development terms with loaded histories: auction, blight, community, demolition, gentrification, property.

That last term, and how it has been constituted in American history, laid the foundation for Blights Out’s dissection of auctions as well. The event was held, after all, on a vacant lot that the collective has been struggling to acquire before they’re priced out of a gentrifying neighborhood, in a city and country where black bodies were once considered property to be bought and sold. After performers Michael “Quess?” Moore and Daiquiri Rene Jones defined “auction,” and “citizenship,” Eversley read aloud:

“If the buying and selling of property is a qualification of citizenship, then the auction of real estate is the process by which citizenship and the freedoms and limitations thereof are established, maintained and revoked. Through the dehumanization of human-turned-property, a U.S. citizen with rights and ‘freedoms’ is born. This dehumanization is normalized through the spectacle of the auction.”

In other words, purchasing human property at auction was once a potential path to citizenship for the buyer. Today, property ownership — real estate or otherwise — is no longer a requirement for citizenship. But it remains a commonly touted path to financial security and the elusive American dream, though it is increasingly clear to many that the path is not equally available to all. The auction, argues Blights Out, is a major engine of that inequality, in part because it stems from the slave trade: the one devaluing black bodies as mere commodity; the other, black homes, black neighborhoods, black spaces.

“There is a connection between antebellum slave auctions and their financial relationships, to real estate and also to city planning, which shows you the way white supremacy is mapped in so many ways and so many layers onto urban space, particularly in New Orleans,” says Eversley.

The New Orleans City Planning Commission, she discovered, has roots that can be traced back directly to wealthy slave auctioneers, who turned to real estate after the war. Articles drawing that connection, plus snippets of interviews and oral histories mapping today’s auction process, were woven together into the performance and a broadsheet distributed at the event.

Eversley says her research is far from over, “but the correlation is undeniable. And it’s not surprising, because black people were considered real estate. Subconsciously we know that, whether or not we’re thinking about what that means.”

New Orleans for Sale

In post-Katrina New Orleans, auctions have proliferated as a central tool in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s anti-blight efforts, as a means to “return properties to commerce,” as the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) puts it on its website. NORA holds auctions twice annually; the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office auctions off foreclosed properties once a week; New Orleans has an online system for auctioning off adjudicated properties with unpaid property taxes.

“All these different auctions that are means of trying to inscribe monetary value to a property that has somehow failed,” says Imani Jacqueline Brown, a Blights Out co-founder who grew up in the Upper Treme. “First as shelter because no one is living in it, it’s not helping anyone. And has failed secondarily in its function as a financial instrument. The New Orleans that I know and that I grew up in values property and values neighborhoods not as an investment, not as an asset class for speculation, not as a starter home that you’ll then abandon and move onto something bigger and better and more prefab, but you value it for its ability as a social asset and cultural asset, as a cultural and community anchor.”

New Orleans has between 40,000 and 60,000 blighted properties, while housing advocates estimate the city will need 33,000 affordable housing units by 2025. Blights Out says developers have the upper hand over current residents in the auction and acquisition process.

About four years ago, the collective set out to acquire a piece of property through relational channels — no auctions. “We don’t want to participate in a process that could be potentially predatory. We want to acquire property from people who actually want to sell their property, not people who have gotten stuck somehow,” says Brown.

They canvassed the neighborhood, identifying the owners of vacant houses, writing to them about how they might buy the properties directly.

The goal was to rehab a two-story space into permanently affordable housing, backed by a land trust, on the second floor, and with a community arts and organizing space on the ground level. Eversley was brought on to document the process, with the intention of creating a toolkit others might follow to acquire property themselves.

But their own experience ended up revealing just how convoluted that system is. The first house they looked at burned down. Brown points out how in neighborhoods with few vacants, blighted houses tend to receive a lot of calls to code enforcement for issues as minor as chipping paint, but in neighborhoods like Holly Grove where one in three houses are vacant, major health and safety hazards can go unaddressed.

Their second choice turned out to be problematic too. A housing nonprofit had purchased about 10 houses in an auction after Katrina, with a mandate to turn them into affordable housing within the year. They ran out of funds after working on half and transferred the rest to other nonprofits through the official channels, but gave one away to a New York-based lawyer. Blights Out spent months trying to acquire the property from her, ultimately involving the mayor’s office. But she sold to someone else. At this point, the house has flipped three times, its value rising from $8,000 to nearly $200,000. It still sits vacant.

“This was a house that was earmarked for affordable housing, and it’s slipping through the cracks,” says Brown. “And if it’s happening with this one, it must be happening with dozens of other ones.”

Finally, Blights Out found a third house, right across the street from Ooh Poo Pah Doo Bar. Before the whole group could look at the property together, the city demolished it. Four years after starting their search, the collective is now trying to purchase the vacant lot where it once stood, plus another across the street. If the deal goes through, they’ll use the lots to create semipermanent outdoor structures for gathering spaces, perhaps eventually building a house from scratch. It’s not ideal, but they don’t see another option. “The window to get what we wanted is closing,” says Eversley.

Now, to acquire one lot, they’ll have to pay off $29,000 in unpaid taxes — and, if the city doesn’t waive them, blight liens and even a demolition fee. This idea that property is valueless unless it contributes to city coffers directly impacts black homeowners, argues Eversley.

“‘If it can’t be taxed then it’s now not valuable, so we can demolish it,’” she characterizes the city’s position. “But what if there’s a people without wealth, because there’s never been a moment for us to accumulate wealth? That keeps us perpetually valueless and then always subject to removal.”

As much as she thinks people need to be educated about the interlocking systems at play, Eversley sometimes worries that the findings are so grim, they could stoke pessimism. And she and Brown acknowledge the potential for paradox in using art to combat gentrification and displacement. Blights Out began, after all, when founders Brown, Lisa Sigal and Carl Joe Williams were asked to beautify blighted homes for an arts festival. Williams refused, saying he was “not interested in painting a bandage on the open wounds of the community,” according to Brown.

But arts do drive gentrification. Brown relays a quote from Larry Fink, CEO of world’s largest asset management company BlackRock, who says that the two greatest financial assets in the world are contemporary art and apartments in New York, Vancouver and London. Contemporary art, of course, is frequently sold at auction.

But Blights Out is looking to make a different kind of art. “We consider this whole thing to be a piece of art, and we plan on this land being a thorn in the side of development,” says Brown. “How do you keep art from being complicit in gentrification? You make it completely uncommodifiable. You make it completely unpalatable to development. You make it so development won’t even want to associate with it, let alone co-opt it.”

“There’s no win. It’s a small win,” she concedes. “But ultimately the city is going to be gentrified. We’re just trying to stem the bleeding at this point.”